Category Archives: Cultural Anthropology

Love your cultural enemies? Start with listening and validating their story

Cultural enemies are those who oppose our views about important aspects of life (faith, religion, identity, family, values, community, government, politics, etc.). Worse, many cultural enemies do more than oppose our way of life, they accuse us of the worst sort of behavior, that of hating and hurting others with our culture via systematic bigotry.

When we hear Jesus call to “love your enemy” (Matthew 5) what images of love come to mind with this kind of enemy? Not returning evil for evil? Not seeking revenge? While turning the other cheek is surely part of what it means to love the enemy, we know that love requires action as well–not just the absence of bad responses. 

What if our first action was to really listen to and validate the story of our cultural enemy? Might sound easy but it is not!

Consider Mark Galli’s recent short essay in the April 2016 issue of Christianity Today [link here: as he addresses the challenge when two opposing groups feel their story/narrative is not being heard by the other side. 

We experience daily clashing narratives from Muslims, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, whites, main liners, evangelicals, pro-choices, pro-lifers, gays, straights, men, women, elites, the poor–to name a few. 

Mark points out why listening is so hard. First he notes, 

…narratives define the conflict, name the antagonists, and spell out the resolution. Narratives are, of course, biased. They rarely lie about the facts, but they are selective in their use of them. 

Then, he says one of the more difficult things for us to embrace.

The truth does not lie somewhere in the middle, as we are wont to say, but on both ends. [For example,] The American experiment is a remarkable achievement of democratic governance, human rights, and free speech–and is riddled with hypocrisy and racism. 

Yet it is difficult to take seriously the narrative of the other. We fear that if we do, we’ll sabotage the value of our own narrative. 

And that is the reason why listening is difficult. To listen to the other means to give credibility to the other’s story. And if their story (which paints me or those like me as the enemy) has any merit, then maybe my story will not get any airtime. In fact, we probably already have evidence that our story has been marginalized or charicatured and so we rarely enter a conversation without a chip on our shoulder. 

 To listen to you, my cultural enemy, I have to relinquish my anxiety that I will not get the same opportunity. (This, by the way, is the most frequent challenge in conflictual marriages. If I listen to your hurts, it will diminish my right to be heard.)

Half-listening is not real listening. 

Faux forms of listening need to be named as they give the appearance of listening but actually leave all parties further apart. Galli points out mitigation as one tactic needing. Mitigation is in play when we say, “Yes, true, but you…” In this method we barely acknowledge some sin on our side but excuse it on the basis of a larger sin on their side. We point out their biases, straw-men, mis-characterizations, and sins that cause us to possibly do something wrong. In short, we listen so as to defend, excuse, blameshift, or explain. 

But true love for other requires a different response, one that moves beyond hearing to validating the story. 

True love requires that we listen and validate the narrative, even with its biases. We even go one step further to acknowledge where our own cultural narratives have been wrong, even if we think the wrong is small compared to the wrong on the other side. Can I listen and acknowledge (validate) their wounds, their experiences of injustice. 

Validation does not mean agreement on all aspects of the narrative. 

I once watched an academic presentation/debate between a biblical counselor and a psychologist from a different persuasion. They psychologist went first and detailed a long list of sins and failures of biblical counselors (in practice and in foundational beliefs). The biblical counselor then stood up and took the time to agree with the  psychologist. Without caveat, he agreed with the sins and mis-application of the bible. There was no defense. Instead, he even asked the psychologist if he had any personal negative history with biblical counseling. The psychologist told a rather personal history of harm to his own family many decades before. It provided an opportunity for the biblical counselor to apologize for that experience. Later, the counselor was able to talk about what he hoped biblical counseling would be known for and painted a picture that I think most in the room could value. But, none of that would have happened if the counselor didn’t set aside the temptation to defend or deflect criticisms that might have been little more then charicatures. 

Try it with your next conversation with a cultural enemy. Hear their story. Validate whatever portion holds some portion of the truth. Do it without a “but”. Be willing to consider the flaws in your own side even if the other will not do the same. Trust that God will make all things right (including our flawed culture) in due time. And trust that He will give you the time and space to speak truth (in love) to your cultural enemy. 

Leave a comment

Filed under conflicts, Cultural Anthropology, group dynamics, Justice

Armageddon? Must be something we want

My family and I went to the theatres to see “The Hobbit” today. (Decent movie…not faithful to the book, but still good. Thought the 3D was worth it.) If you have gone to the movies recently, you know you first have to be assaulted by 10-15 movie trailers for forthcoming movies.

And what is coming soon to a theatre near you? The apocalypse. Armageddon. Zombies. Alien destruction of the world. Post-apocalypse. I kept waiting for a love story. The only one that would qualify was a “zombie falls in love with a girl” flick…and then they try to stop the mass destruction of zombies before said zombies kill remaining humans. Even the kids’ cartoon movie is about alien destruction.

What is the big deal with the “end of the world as we know it” motif? Does it have anything to do with our political mess of the “fiscal cliff” or “debt ceiling”? Or the recent fascination with “end of the world” predictions (whether by Mayan prediction or by stories about close-calls with asteroids)?

As I see it, there are a couple of possibilities for the increase in disaster/Armageddon fascination:

  1. We are trying to work out our sense that the world doesn’t work well anymore (or we just have more evidence available to us absent from previous eras)
  2. We (humanity) recognize there will be an end and this is our way to trivialize our fears (much like we do with a movie like Jaws)
  3. Someone has figured out there is a lot of money to be made with this genre and so we are flooded…next year it might be riches to rags movies.

What reasons can you think of for this fascination with the end of the world?


Filed under Cultural Anthropology, Movies

If Sixth Graders Ruled the World…

…the world would be run by girls.

Such was the observation of my wife after attending our son’s graduation from elementary school and the 6th grade. I concur. 80% of the awards and recognition for leadership went to girls. Actually, to about 30% of the girls. Mind you, I am not the least bothered by this. It was great to see these young women so active in the life of their school and community.

However, I do have a question: Will their leadership last?

There seems to be a pattern of girls falling back from their high performance in athletics and academia (my general impression and surely not always accurate). Why would there be such a change? Social pressure to focus on looks and boys? Boys catching up development-wise and creating more competition? Or, are we seeing a change in culture that will continue? I’m hoping for this last question to be true. When my wife was in school, there were few opportunities for girls to excel in sports. That has changed. A goodly number of the girls mentioned aspirations of being a professional athlete. When my mother was in school, I doubt many of her classmates aspired to be doctors and lawyers. These days, girls recognize that most professions are wide open to them. So, I hope we are seeing a continued culture change. I’m all for girls wanting to be married and to become mothers (all in DUE time) but I am also worried about how much pressure we place on them regarding looks and body image.

Can you and I do anything about the world of sixth grade girls? Well, let us all endeavor to encourage young women to focus on their intellectual pursuits and god-given callings. And let us cease giving support to those cultural entities (ads, TV, movies, print media, etc.) encouraging young women to equate value with looks.

Leave a comment

Filed under Cultural Anthropology, cultural apologetics, education, Family, parenting, Uncategorized

Counseling as Global Mission of the Church

A few days ago I wrote this for our seminary’s blog regarding how counseling supports the global mission of the church. If you are interested in international counseling work…you need to read this blog and follow the link I promote.

Counseling as Global Mission of the Church.

Leave a comment

Filed under christian counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, counseling science, counseling skills, Cultural Anthropology, ethics, Uncategorized

Failures to act: Why we don’t always blow the whistle on abuse

Outrage. Befuddlement. Demands for the heads of leaders who probably knew something but didn’t appear to act. Righteous indignation against those who merely met legal obligations to report abuse but failed moral obligations to stop abuse.

Right now, in most of the country but especially in Philadelphia, you cannot turn on the television or listen to the radio without encountering such comments about the Sandusky/Penn State sexual abuse scandal. In my county, democrats control the county leadership for the first time in 140 years but no one seems to give that much time because of the outrage about this case. What people are talking about is, (a) why didn’t those who knew something was amiss do more to investigate abuse, and (b) what should happen to those people who failed to stop the abuse.

What would you have done?

If you are like me, you imagine that you would have acted to stop the abuse. You would have grabbed the boy out of the shower. You would have screamed bloody murder until someone took notice. You feel righteous indignation that no one seems to have had the moral fortitude to deal with this issue head on.

And you would be right to feel this way. But while we are holding leaders accountable for their failure to act and to protect (as well we should!) let us take a moment and address some of the reasons why we might not be quite as action oriented as we imagine ourselves. By doing so, we may make it more likely that we will respond correctly should we face the unfortunate situation of reporting someone we know to the authorities.

Here are some of the reasons we fail to intervene when intervention is needed:

Self protection

Worry about personal consequences can hinder our taking action. Thinking about how we will be treated, viewed, responded to can cause us to pause and not act. What if I get fired? What if this abusive person targets me? What if someone were to make an allegation about me? I wouldn’t like that so I don’t want to stir up trouble for this person.

Have you ever wondered why so many drivers flee the scene of a pedestrian/car accident–even when they were not at fault? We want to avoid facing the possibility that we might have done something wrong.

System protection

We sometimes worry about how the organization will be treated or viewed if abuse comes to light. Far too frequently individuals have covered up the sins of church leaders for fear of ruining the reputation of the congregation. This reason is also seen in the next two reasons. We don’t want people to turn away from God so we cover up what happened.


We’d like to think that with a larger group of individuals, sensibility will prevail. But my experience with institutions dealing with a sensitive issue suggests that once a group is deciding how to respond to abuse, it devolves into who has the loudest voice in what should be done next. Unfortunately, the loudest voice may be about liability (vs. morality) or outer reputation (vs. protection of victims). Also, groups often fail to address pertinent issues and alternative responses due to groupthink. Some of the reasons why this is the case can be found in Wikipedia’s definition.  One other thing about groups. We have ample evidence that individuals in a group setting are less likely to intervene when they witness violence happening to someone else. We’re more likely to act if we witness this when alone. Why is this? We may feel less responsibility when others are around.


We like to keep the good people good and the bad people bad. When those who are considered good do bad things, we can fall prey to denial. It is not possible. I know him. He couldn’t possibly do that. Thus, we deny what we have seen and that leads to the next reason.

Self doubt

Have you ever witnessed something troubling but then wondered if you really saw what you thought you saw? Maybe you catch a glimpse of an adult smacking a child in a parking lot as you drive by. Do you stop and confront? Well, maybe you didn’t really see that. Maybe there is some other explanation that might make this acceptable. When the abuse is done by someone we respect, it is easy to think we must have misconstrued it. And once we hesitate, it is that much harder to activate to do the right thing.

Winsomeness of the abusive person

It is important to remember that the most dangerous abuser is the person who is inter-personally winsome. The reason why a person can have access to others and can get away with abuse is often due to their capacity to put others at ease. Most abuse is not done by those who are revolting to others just because they don’t get opportunity. I know of individuals who were caught in acts of child abuse, questioned by authorities, and so winsome that the investigation was dropped before completed. They provide plausible even highly believable explanations that help the questioner feel at ease. They appear to be open and concerned. They are so good they convince most that such abuse could never happen by their hand. It takes a very expert examiner to catch them in the subtle lies they tell to themselves and to others. Check out Anna Salter’s book on predators if you want to see what she has learned from decades of interviewing known, convicted sex offenders.

It is easy for us to sit in the chair of judgment when we hear of cover-ups and failures to act. These failures to protect children do need to be judged and we ought not shrink back from administering restorative justice for abuse and for the inaction of others. However, let us remember that the work of being light in the midst of darkness has many enemies. Our own weaknesses plus the pressures of our community and the manipulative actions of offenders conspire to make inaction the easier choice.

May we take the high road as we encounter abuse in any form.


Filed under Abuse, Christianity, church and culture, Cognitive biases, Cultural Anthropology, deception

Living through the life of another

Citizens Bank Park - From the Break from Right...

Image by wallyg via Flickr

Last night I took my family to a Phillies/Red Sox baseball game. My wife gave me two tickets for father’s day without knowing that another wonderful person offered me two of his tickets to the same game. In many ways, it was a great and blessed night: wonderful weather, great seats, time with one of my sons, a gem of a pitching outing by Cliff Lee despite the fact that I’m a Red Sox fan, a batting practice ball caught and given to my son, and best of all…missing keys turning up in at lost and found (if God hadn’t answered that prayer…well this would be a far different post!).

But, I do want to note a couple of observations about human behavior (notwithstanding the great behavior of whoever found my keys and turned them in…THANK YOU):

  1. People drink far too much. Going to the game means indulging in food and drink
  2. Related to this…it is interesting to watch strangers pass a twenty dollar bill down the row to the aisle, beers and change come back down. No one seems to even play with copping either the beers or money. Outside the park, I’m pretty sure the same values would not apply
  3. Put on a shirt for your team, drink (see #1 above), and you enter the Lord of the Flies. People acting if THEY were the team. When their team does well, they are inclined to make sure the “enemy” is duly scorned and despised.
  4. Some fans of the opposing team (Red Sox fans in this case) don’t seem to realize the odds are against them. Some “men” in front of us decided they would take on the fans in front of them. Created some anxiety in myself and my son. Probably #1 involved. Thankful security took care of the issue.
  5. I’m all for cheering, but some cheer in such a way that makes you think they’re cheering for righteousness and jeering the Nazi Germany. (I”m sure this would also be true if we were in Boston, where I took a beer over the head at one game I attended there).
  6. Some people who pay top dollar for their seats don’t seem to stay in them very much. I can’t count the number of times some of the fans left to buy drinks and other merchandise, and take care of business in the bathroom.


Filed under Cultural Anthropology

“Do you know who I am?” and other self-important acts

In the last little bit we’ve been subjected to lots of signs that famous people tend to fall into the trap of self-importance (or, is it a requirement to be self-important to run for office or seek the limelight?). What signs do I refer to?

  • Taking pictures of certain body parts and emailing them to others
  • Having no apparent qualms about serial cheating while in the limelight
  • Declaring, “Do you know who I am?” and believing that if the other person did realize the importance of the person, that they would give better treatment or allow the famous person off the hook

But we too suffer from the same struggle of self-importance. While I’ve never thought someone would treat me better if they realized my greatness and I’ve never thought it would be cool to send a risqué pic of myself to someone, I have thought, “How dare you treat me this way! I deserve better than this!”

Or how about these ones:

  • inching your bumper so close to the car in front of you so that the car wanting to merge into your lane can’t.
  • cutting in line at a store because you have to get somewhere soon
  • expecting others to praise you for routine work done
  • thinking that everyone is thinking about your gaffe or your entry into a room (this may be experienced as prolonged embarrassment and desires to flee)
  • worrying about fairness about chores and whether you’re doing more than another
  • ruminating on your unsung value to your company

What other acts of self-importance are you prone to? What do they say about your sense of self? We’d like to believe that the Congressman from New York or a drunk driving actor acting oafishly are cut from a different cloth and act in ways that you and I would never consider. But, in fact the root of their foolish behavior is (a) seeking self-importance and the acclaim of others, and (b) failing to see the value of self-denial.


Filed under Cultural Anthropology, News and politics, Uncategorized

Why Jonah was and is still wrong

You probably already heard the news that Fred Phelps and his family, aka Westboro Baptist Church, won their Supreme Court case yesterday. If you are unfamiliar with this case, read/listen to NPR’s news story on the sordid history. The short summary is this. The Phelps family believes that “sodomites” and their supporters (America) are going to hell. This particular belief is not all that rare. But what makes the Phelps family stand out is, (a) their belief about what God is calling them to do about the problem, and (b) their tactics of protesting at funerals of servicemen and women and other public figures. A father of a dead soldier sued the Phelps for causing him pain and suffering when they picketed outside his son’s funeral. Among their picket signs about homosexuality were signs such as “Thank God for dead soldiers”. A lower court agreed with the father’s suit and awarded the father 5 million dollars in damages. Yesterday the Supreme Court reversed that decision saying that hurtful speech is still protected speech.

The NPR coverage goes beyond the usual coverage and attempts to detail some of the Phelps’ theological beliefs and or motivations for their hateful speech. I found it very interesting since usually they are just (rightly) labeled as nut-cases. Some of their thinking:

  • It is their job to try to make American’s angry, to reject God and be damned to hell
  • “Our job is laid out,” she says, in comments sprinkled with biblical references. “We are supposed to blind their eyes, stop up their ears and harden their hearts so that they cannot see, hear or understand, and be converted and receive salvation.” (quote from NPR story)

Why the Phelps are wrong: A quick look at how we are to respond to sinners

If NPR has captured their motivations and beliefs accurately, then they have made a couple of significant errors.

1. Whose job is it to damn, blind, and judge?

At the last day, God will indeed judge the world. He will separate sheep from goats. There will likely be surprises in heaven (last minute conversions and people we thought were going to be there but were really wolves in sheep’s clothing). Sometimes God sends prophets to preach to the condemned. True enough. But, the prophets preach the need to repent and/or the coming judgment. God does say to Ezekiel that his hearers won’t listen to him preach the need or repentance. But, preach repentance he must.

Or consider Jonah. Jonah is called to preach to Nineveh. His job is to preach. And this is what bothers Jonah. Jonah knows that God is a merciful God and will forgive. That is what bothers him; he wants Nineveh to suffer! The Phelps want America to suffer.

2. The message? Do the Phelps want people to be converted and get into heaven? By the quotes above you would have to answer an emphatic NO. Seems they might be afraid to find that heaven is filled with all sorts of sinners (maybe even pride-filled, angry, protesting, mean-spirited people?). Paul says gives a list of sins and says, “and such as were some of you” as he writes to believers. Let us remember that heaven will be filled with sinners. Yes, those sinners have been forgiven and are living lives of daily repentance and turning from their sin. But sinners they are right up to the moment of entering heaven.

How do we respond to sinners? How do we respond to ourselves? Pray, converse, eat with, and care for. Oh, and yes, talk about the only way to righteousness. Following Jesus’ example is a good start!


Filed under Cultural Anthropology, news, News and politics

Thoughts on causation and tolerating complex answers

Three things have me thinking about causation: a comment on autism my wife heard on the radio…the Arizona shooting…and the ending of my Congo book (mentioned in the previous post). We love to know WHY something has happened. Why autism or any other illness? Why a senseless shooting? Why so much corruption and unrest in central Africa?

Why is a good essential question. Might it be part of being an image bearer of God? It is hard to have dominion over our world if we don’t have the capacity to understand cause and effect. But, being human and therefore limited hands us a challenge. How do we understand complex facets of problems. Too often we mistake correlations for causes. And even more often we limit the cause to one simplistic answer.

Simple works for us. It is more efficient. We consider a problem, conclude an answer, and move on to other subjects. If we couldn’t move on, we might bog down and lose traction in our lives. Simple also works for us humans when we want to lay the blame for something that has happened at someone else’s feet.

Here’s what I notice in many of these kinds of conversations. If you try to single out a particular causal facet for focused discussion, there will be others who say, “yes, but, you also need to consider…”. It is extremely hard to play out one part of the cause/effect without being accused of being biased.  And if you try to develop a laundry list of causes…the conversation often loses traction and some hear you as letting others (e.g., vaccine manufacturers, Sara Palin, Mobutu, etc.) off the hook.

Try this experiment!

So, try to have a conversation today where you either (a) try to single out a particular cause for some widely discussed situation, or (b) try to list the complexities of the situation…and see what happens. Would love to hear your experience! What happens when you single out a possible cause? What happens when you try to include all of the possible causes?

Not sure what to talk about? Try one of these:

Consider autism. Why does it happen and why does it seem to start happening soon after a vaccine? There are known neurotoxins in vaccines…child seems to develop them after being vaccinated…thus it is the fault of companies who make them (and the medical establishment that promote them). See if you can talk about the relationship between the two without getting into an argument. Or you might decide to discuss the fact that autism is higher in subsequently born children if they arrive within one year of their older sibling. (Of course, if this were true then we should be able to document higher autism rates in Catholic families from the previous century!)

Consider the Arizona shooting. Why would someone shoot so many people and have so little disregard for human life? Sounds like the shooter was delusional and probably suffering from paranoid schizophrenia (armchair diagnosis). Try discussing the possible causes of this behavior? Schizophrenia? Over the top political fighting language? Failure of the educational system to get him to treatment?

Consider the Congo. Why is there so much corruption and unrest? African culture? The sad effects of so many decades of European rule and racism? Greed over the countries natural resources?



Filed under Cultural Anthropology, News and politics

Obsession with race and classification

Cover of "The Troubled Heart of Africa: A...

Cover via Amazon

Why are we obsessed with the race or heritage of those we meet? Seems like we are overly interested in ethnicity…as is “”what are you?” kinds of questions that we ask those who seem exotic, different, or not clearly defined.

Am reading two books at once: Robert Edgerton’s book on Congo history, “The Troubled Heart of Africa” and Jean-Pierre Chretien’s “The Great Lakes of Africa: Two Thousand Years of History.” This obsession with lineage and ethnicity is not new. Both have numerous quotes from Europeans during explorations in the 1800s. Rwandan Hutus and Tutsis are variously described and “nilotic” (from the Nile), Semitic, Negroid, Greek in facial features, etc. Certain Congolese are described as Macaques (Monkeys) and those who hare “civilized” are described as “evolved.” Of course many described them as “hamitic” as in the tribe of Ham.

I know we are beyond (mostly) those dark days of abject, unabashed racism, but seems we still want to classify people. I’ve been asked, “What are they?” in regards to my kids (who are clearly African American). I imagine biracial folks get these questions in spades.

Why is it so important to know? What do we gain from asking? I think we ask for a couple of reasons.

  • Curiosity is probably one key reason. Some of us are attracted to different
  • Connection is probably another motivation. We’ve met someone who looks like this and want to feel close to this new person
  • Categorizing via racialization. We may want to know how to think about someone. “Are you Italian? Oh, so that explains why I think you are…” This is the biggest reason I think. It gives us clues (shortcuts and stereotypes) as to how we want to think about and respond to others. The ugly side of this is that we categorize in order to develop stratification or castes.

Are there other reasons we do this? Good ones?


Filed under Cultural Anthropology, Race, Rwanda